Telling Black Stories: Lessons from Sundance 2016

In a world where #OscarsSoWhite is trending, films like Nate Parker’s Birth of A Nation come as less of a breath of fresh air and more as a much-needed deep gasp from America. Films at international festivals like Roger Ross William’s Life, Animated and Tahir Jetter’s How To Tell You’re A Douchebag are increasingly necessary in a culture that attempts to devalue Black lives and voices. 

As a 2016 Sundance Ignite Fellow, which provides support and mentorship to emerging filmmakers, I had a chance to attend the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, pitch work to a variety of diverse filmmakers, and have conversations with people that were shaping the culture of cinema as we know it. In photographing and filming the actions at the 4th Precinct here at home with NOC, it has started to become increasingly important to make connections between Black voices in national cinemas and the Black voices that are right here at home.

The biggest story that came out of the festival was Nate Parker’s film Birth of A Nation about Nathaniel "Nat" Turner who led some of the most powerful slave rebellions in the 1830s. It is a story of resistance and rebellion aptly named after 1915’s Birth of a Nation by KKK propagandist D.W. Griffith. Parker, whose film was sold to Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17.5 million, stated in various interviews that “few people know that [Griffith’s]Birth of A Nation was the first feature film.” What does that say about American culture that the first theatrical film was one filled with racism and stereotypically brutish Black bodies? Parker’s film in a way is asking for a new birth of cinema, one which celebrates Black stories beyond the capacity of white filmmakers, producers, and editors. 

His film also sparked conversations with activists and media reporters about which Black stories get told. Similarly to Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Parker’s film presents Blackness and Black resistance as something historical. When Black characters are presented as strong and positive, it's often within the context of slave dramas or civil rights era biopics. Yes, these are positive messages, are but distanced from present audiences through time. 

After hearing Parker and other filmmakers of color speak about their work at the festival, I thought a lot about the struggles within black storytelling. What does robust and just black filmmaking look like? Does it have to be firmly rooted in our past before we can progress to telling our stories honestly? I would argue not. We don't have to keep making historical Black films exclusively. With the advancement of cameras, including the smartphone you are probably reading this article on, anyone can tell an authentic story themselves. Sure, you may not have a large production budget or the best actors, but you have story. For example, the media makers at the 4th Precinct caught something that was historical, timely, and truthful to their own experiences being agents of change in Minnesota. Work like that needs to be celebrated within Black Storytelling. It should be in Sundance next year.  

After an impromptu conversation with Nate Parker at an event, I asked him what was next for Black Storytelling -- what was beyond Birth of A Nation. He responded that the themes of films like his own and Selma needed to travel and be told in everyday relatable scenes. It made me think of what a feature film about the resistance against police brutality in Minneapolis would look like and how important it would be to the activism. What's North Minneapolis's story of resistance? 

When we fight for racial, economic, and criminal justice, we are also fighting for our voices. We're fighting against mainstream media's version of our stories and putting forth our own lived narratives. This is a form of media activism and organizing. We’re fighting for our narratives to be legitimized as well and their worth. So, grab your cellphones or your friends’ camera and let's get filming. The industry is waiting. 

Content and Skaterboards Become Something to be Avoided like a Plague

Since November of 2012, the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, commonly referred to as MACBA, has dedicated an entire level of their modern space to a new series in their Critical Episodes collection called Content Becomes Something to be Avoided like a Plague. This series includes works by Art & Language, Raymond Hains, Nigel Henderson, Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg and Antoni Tàpies.

The series explored the reactions to art in the mid-twentieth century, when Europe was emerging from a post-war period and Abstract Expressionism was developing in America. Detached from representation of any kind, painting had become a field of perceptual stimuli. However in the sixties, artists, urged on by filmmaker Pere Portabella, began to speak out and challenge the principles and understandings of abstract expressionism. Counterproposals include incorporating objects into the painting surface, using images from advertising and photography, applying an analytical approach to the artworks and exploring their relationship with their exhibition context.The group toured the exhibit with our guide Aurora and engaged in conversations of concept, craft, art, and social contexts.

We first viewed Rober Rauschenburg's Sense titol (1972), and I personally was asked by our guide if I think this is art. The question in conjunction with the piece displayed on the wall, admittedly, left me silent at first. The only answer I could muster would be the fact that the item is within a museum - the fact that MACBA has paid for this piece and that museum-goers paid earned euros to see it and that there is a sense of creation. This answer shaped the entirety of how I viewed the rest of the series. Following Rauschenburg's cardboard construction was another highlight by Raymond Hains which drew on consumer culture. Hain worked with the practice of decollage, tearing off fragments of images on advertising billboards. In this work, we see that the works in the series demand that art could not ignore the social and political changes that were brewing. 

The third piece that evoked conversation and attempts at touching the art was Oyvind Fahlstrom's The General (Pinball Machine) (1967-68). It is the largest and most important of pools constructed by Fahlstrom. A major poet-artist, Marcel Broodthaers, noted that the piece exemplified the idea that the institutions that host art must also be overhauled in the new world order. The glimpses of popular icons like Jackie Kennedy and Che Guevara within this untouchable pool of water, for me, was a reminder of the museum infrastructure that houses and creates the label of art and the idea of how images relate to popular culture. Again, we see here like with Rauschenberg and Hains, that art cannot ignore the context that it exists in.


Inside CC3-Maileryn by Oiticica and Almeida

Interestingly enough, it seems that the structure of MACBA is engaged in dialogue with it outside - brimming with skateboarders. The museums plaza and essentially its front door are lined with boys and men and wheels and the architectural details of the entrance are caked with wax and adorned by bottles of Fanta. After viewing the Content exhibit, this idea of what constitutes as art led me to think about art that exist outside of museums and how we as new media students and artists can challenge the ideas of the museum system, in a similar way as the aforementioned artists. 
CAMS alumni Linnea Bullion, who traveled on the CAMS OCS trip in 2011 and is no stranger to the plaza of MACBA, worked on a photography book about skaters in Barcelona and Copenhagen for her senior comprehensive project. I decided to ask her what she thought of art inside and outside of MACBA. She states, "The plaza itself is just brimming with life, but I feel like modern museums can be a bit stagnant...I entirely associate 'MACBA' now with the square itself [instead of the inside]. I think it's awesome that the museum isn't crotchety about letting people skate the ledges outside but other than that, there's no real connection between the two spaces. They're like venn diagrams - two intersecting spaces, but the majority of their details lie within the differences, not the similarities." The photographs outside of MACBA in Bullion's comps is literally art created outside a museum and serves as an interesting supplement to what Content Becomes Something to be Avoided like a Plague and in my opinion, acts as something that can exsist in the middle of the venn diagram.

-Brit Fryer [Photo 1: MACBA Site, Photo 2,3,4,5: Brit Fryer]